Every year, around this time, Wong Kar King is usually nowhere to be found in Singapore. Not at his Woodlands office or Tuas manufacturing facility. Nor even with his family.
He hasn’t gone completely MIA. For the last three years, the founder and managing director of mainboard-listed engineering company Advanced Holdings has enrolled himself in a boot camp in Thailand, where he undergoes a week-long wellness programme that includes a mix of muay thai, suspension exercise training, as well as alone time. Gruelling as it seems, it is motivating for Wong.
And his lean and tanned physique shows it. The 53-year-old says: “It is what I do annually to recharge. It is also when I get a clear picture of the company’s direction for the year.”
Wong is no stranger to an active lifestyle. Golf, squash, marathons, basketball – he’s nearly done it all. And it is this passion for sports that has helped the entrepreneur in many unexpected ways, far from a football field or basketball court where he once held sway as a dominant athlete.
While the elite Malaysia boys’ school he attended was known for being one of the “toughest” – “cases of extortion and physical abuse were not uncommon,” he says – his reputation as an alpha-male sportsman shielded him from any such unpleasantness.
“Being a sportsperson, people generally left you alone because you were not an easy target. I was in taekwondo (he has a red belt with a black tip, which is one grade shy of the highest rank, black belt), so I was always very alert. Till today, I am very aware of my surroundings,” says Wong.
He still plays golf and squash, in addition to jogging, at least three times a week.
The discipline, mental strength and decision-making skills honed from years of kicking a football, swinging a racket and pounding a track have been key in his subsequent growth to become one of Singapore’s most successful entrepreneurs.
He started Advanced in 1993 using his savings and, over the course of two decades, has grown it into a leading supplier of proprietary process equipment and technologies, as well as clean energy solutions and environmental technologies, to the petrochemicals, chemicals and energy industries.
From a two-person operation with cash-flow problems, the group today has revenues nearing $115 million and more than 500 employees in over 10 countries spanning the Asia-Pacific, the Middle East, Europe and US.
Last November, he was named Singapore’s Entrepreneur of the Year by EY, and will go on to compete in its global edition in Monaco in June.
Wong grew up on a rubber plantation in Malaysia owned by his family, in a place so remote that it didn’t even have a name. Rather, a reference to the closest town – Kampung Segari in the state of Perak – was its only form of identification. His was an idyllic childhood that would be foreign to most kids today.
“It was fun for a boy. I rode a small moped when I was 10 with no safety helmet. I remember walking along the river with our dog, which would sniff out snakes and chase iguanas,” he recalls.
While sports were his first love at school, he also knew that doing well academically was his ticket out of the plantation. “I wanted to see the world. I wasn’t prepared to grow old in the plantation.”
He did well enough for his A-level examinations to qualify to study medicine at Queen’s University Belfast in the UK. But his dreams of becoming a doctor were dashed when his father was forced to sell the plantation after running into financial difficulties. He had to pull out of medical school and look for a cheaper course.
His top grades meant he had the pick of any faculty at the same university and, after briefly considering computer science, he settled on engineering.
The young man excelled at his chosen course of study and after graduating with a degree, secured a job in Singapore in 1984.
But academia wasn’t quite finished with him yet.
Just two weeks into his new job, his professor from Queen’s called to offer him a scholarship to do research that would lead to a doctorate.
He received his PhD three years later, after helping to develop a computer-assisted design software tool for the fabrication of semiconductor devices.
The project fired up his entrepreneurial instincts, and he immediately worked towards starting up a business to commercialise the software. However, a researcher in Vienna that was working on a similar project decided to release all his findings to the public as an open-source software, making Wong’s own offering worthless in the process.
“The ideas that my professor fed me ignited a small flame in me to become an entrepreneur. So I was disappointed when that didn’t happen, but I decided to look forward,” he says. What had become clear was that his career path lay in the world of business and academia had merely been the catalyst for his entry into it.
With his first stab at business missing the mark, Wong moved to the private sector in 1987 by joining Rotork, a maker of manufacturing flow control equipment based in Bath, England. There, he received an education in all aspects of the business – rotating among all its divisions – before settling into a sales and marketing role.
He also learnt about the politicking and power plays that can occur in the corporate world. Again, it was the fighting spirit imbued by sports that helped him overcome some of these challenges. He rose through the ranks and, still not yet 30 years old, was assigned a regional position in Asia, based in Singapore.
“We took up a project in Asia and there was a technical problem. One senior manager blamed it on me. I stood up and fought against his accusation. I told him I would resign if it was my fault,” he says. An investigation found him innocent of any wrongdoing and the senior manager apologised.
He adds: “I prefer not to be confrontational but I don’t shy away from standing up for myself. Sports prepares you for conflict; builds you to handle and take that stress.”
When he felt there was little room for career growth at Rotork, he decided it was time to strike out on his own. In 1992, he left that employ to start Advanced in Singapore. Ironically, because of his lack of track record in the city-state, he netted his first projects in Japan and South Korea.
“In the local market, people know that you are a new start-up. But, when you’re overseas, they assume you have hundreds of engineers – although, apart from me, it was just a part-time secretary. I did all the drawings and Powerpoint presentations,” says Wong.
“I was trained as a corporate man, so I put on my suit and I knew how to handle a crowd. It was relatively easier to get a job overseas than it was in Singapore.”
In those early years, Advanced expanded through subcontract deals with international players to provide services in Singapore and also by acquiring a local and regional player to gain access into the Singapore market.
One of Wong’s early gambles was to enter the China market in 1994, long before it became the world’s hottest destination for profit-seeking entrepreneurs.
“China was one of the places where I spent a lot of time developing business when I was working for Rotork. I had a lot of contacts and knew where to look. I had a hunch that China would continue to grow, but I don’t think anyone could have foreseen how forceful that growth would be,” he says. By acquiring businesses, forming joint ventures and setting up subsidiaries, Advanced established a substantial presence in China. It built a factory in Shanghai and owned waterworks in Pengxi, Yanting and Chengdu.
Today, the China market accounts for about 40 per cent of the group’s revenue.
Learning Through Crisis
It didn’t take long before Wong would face his first crisis as a rookie entrepreneur. In 1995, as a result of poor financial management, Advanced simply ran out of money.
“We had problems with managing cash flow. My background was in research and engineering, before being thrust into a commercial role. I had little exposure managing a business.”
At the time, he and his young family lived in the staff quarters of Nanyang Technological University (NTU), where his wife held a lecturing position. “Our kids were below six years old. We had no home of our own and no support structure as our families were in Malaysia. My credit cards were all maxed out and we had no cash.”
Doubts of the business’ survival set in but he refused to give up. Fortunately, he was a quick learner and moved to convince his bankers not to pull his credit lines, even as he chased his debtors for payment.
Thankfully, this early baptism of fire proved to be short-lived and it was soon business as usual. Cash management was stricter and Advanced started asking for down payments.
Wong has since managed the company’s finances with an extremely conservative bent. He has kept debt to a minimum (it currently has none) and cash levels healthy.
It wouldn’t take long before he would face another, bigger challenge, as the Asian financial crisis that broke out in 1997 cut a wide swath of destruction across the region’s business landscape.
This time, the problems faced were external and beyond the control of even the most fiscally prudent manager. The fast-spreading contagion took Wong and his team by surprise. The stakes were now higher, as the company’s bank facilities had grown far larger, in line with its revenue growth up to that point.
“Our orders were full in 1997 and we had spare cash. We thought the Asian crisis would not impact us but, in 1998, people started cancelling work and some companies even folded. We then realised it was a far bigger problem than we thought.
“I decided to tell our bankers before real issues arose. I was very frank with them, and told them that they could recall the loan and try to sell the business, but they would then have a bankrupt doctorate holder with no way of paying them. I asked them to give me some time to resolve the issue.”
His bankers believed him and Advanced rode out the crisis intact, after pursuing a two-pronged strategy that involved tightening belts and aggressively chasing new business.
It then embarked on an ambitious expansion strategy by using its cash hoard to acquire several businesses in the US, China, UK and Singapore to boost its engineering services and product capabilities.
In 2004, Advanced listed on the Singapore Exchange to raise funds for further expansion. He says: “What I’ve learnt from the training I’ve had in competitive sports is that it’s all about perseverance, and bearing with the mental and physical pain.”
A Billion Dollar Ambition
With a presence in India, South Korea, South-east Asia and China, as well as the US and Europe, Advanced today occupies a leadership position in a portfolio of business lines that include applied engineering, designing and manufacturing equipment and systems, and clean technologies.
Wong has laid out ambitious five-year and 10-year road maps for the group to capitalise on improving business sentiment in the US, Middle East and China. He is also optimistic about the growth of liquid natural gas (LNG) – a clean fuel that is growing in use globally.
“It is going to be the fuel of the future and we can’t run away from that. We are developing services for the LNG industry,” he says.
The end goal is to propel Advanced into the league of billion-dollar enterprises over the next 10 years by becoming the world’s leading industrial solutions provider in the oil and gas, and petrochemical and chemical industries, on a par with the industry’s biggest boys like Emerson and Thermo Fisher Scientific.
Asked if he would like his three daughters to eventually join the company, Wong smiles and shakes his head. His eldest daughter is working in the finance sector, while his second daughter is studying medicine in London. His youngest is in a boarding school in England. He says: “I have no intention to turn Advanced into a family business and grooming my kids to take over the company.
They have not expressed an interest and I don’t think it is fair for me to impose this on them. In this respect, the company is better left in the hands of professional managers.”